Big East Report: Expansion, Stratification
If stability has been achieved, then we'll likely see South Florida defeat Rutgers on Wednesday and Syracuse dispense with Louisville on Saturday. The Bulls have joined the upper half of the conference now that quarterback B.J. Daniels came out of an early season funk in completing 13-of-16 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Louisville has shown itself unable to seal the deal against quality foes Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Oregon State. If the 6-2 Orange are what their record says they are, they'll find a way to hold off the Cardinals.
If not, it's another week of chaos in America's most balanced conference.
At a surprising 6-2, Syracuse is the darling of the Big East. Just don't tell that to workmanlike coach Doug Marrone. The coach made clear before the season that his team's goal was a winning season and a trip to a bowl game. With six wins the Orange are bowl eligible, but not quite assured of a bowl trip just yet. So, for now, Marrone has had little to say about his team's surprising rise. "We're 6-2 and really haven't accomplished anything yet," is how he explained things on Monday during the Big East coaches' teleconference.
One reason for their steady ascent: team speed. Although lacking a dynamic playmaker on offense, Marrone's been more focused on his defensive team speed. He discussed how he moved players like Doug Hogue, a high school running back with interest from Penn State, over to linebacker. "When we first came here we didn't have a lot of speed on defense so that was our goal. To compete with the very good skill guys in this conference."
The decision has finally paid off. Syracuse went 3-1 against the most difficult stretch of the schedule facing USF, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Things should ease up, however slightly, in its final three conference games against Louisville, Rutgers and Connecticut. Despite losing the tiebreaker to Pittsburgh, the Orange still have a shot at the conference crown because, as they battle the middle of the conference, Pittsburgh must still play Connecticut, USF, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Three of those games are on the road.
Briefly: word came this week that after its meeting in Philadelphia, the Big East presidents have agreed to pursue expansion in football. The eight-school conference is looking to expand to 10 schools, and has several different directions it can go. Outside of the "10" number, none of this is new, but does signal that change is coming soon enough. Every candidate has strengths and drawbacks, but from purely a football standpoint, TCU could be an excellent pickup. That is, assuming the school can hang onto coach Gary Patterson for much longer.
In The Shadows
Although not a single Big East school is ranked in the major polls, there are signs of life. A disastrous non-conference season bumped the Big East from the rankings but now that conference play has arrived some are gingerly being welcomed back to respectability. In what settles for good news, three Big East schools are "also receiving votes" in Pittsburgh, West Virginia and surprising Syracuse.
The Quarterback Mess
In time, its young stable of quarterbacks could be a point of strength for the conference. In the meantime, they're just young. Combined, the league's passers have just 127 starts. Of those, currentlyy 51 are on the bench thanks to injury, performance and suspension issues. Arguably, those are wasted starts and there is an interesting discussion to be had during the offseason to discern how much of that could be attributed to poor recruiting, developmental mistakes or other issues.
For example, finally benefiting from two healthy quarterbacks, Rutgers has chosen to start true freshman Chas Dodd Wednesday against USF over sophomore Tom Savage.
Illustrating this dilemma well, Dodd has just three career starts, leaving Savage and his 15 -- the second-most in the Big East and almost two full seasons' worth -- on the sideline. Savage was one of the biggest recruits in Rutgers history but while playing solid as a freshman has been unable to sustain the offense and develop into a more reliable passer.
Rutgers safety Joe Lefeged is among 10 semi-finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation's top defensive back. Lefeged ranks eighth nationally in fumbles forced and 15th in kick returns, has blocked two kicks, is second in tackles for the Scarlet Knights and may have single-handedly won the game against Florida International earlier in the season.
Connecticut linebacker Sio Moore earned Bronco Nagurski Award player of the week honors after making 17 tackles, three tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and forcing two fumbles in the Huskies' 16-13 upset win over West Virginia.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who is getting Big East defensive player of the year talk thanks to nine sacks, 15 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles, is not among the 12 semi-finalists for the Rotary Lombardi award.
How Big East programs shake out, in our view, after eight weeks of play (Sagarin Predictor national ranking in parentheses)
1. Pittsburgh (25) No. 1, but for how long?
2. Syracuse (42) Magic
3. South Florida (57) Live by Daniels, die by Daniels
4. West Virginia (39) Disappointing
5. Louisville (44) Stay gold
6. Cincinnati (52) Needs Collaros back
7. Connecticut (77) Needs road win
8. Rutgers (84) Sliding